While plenty of indie rock bands are held high as symbols of creative freedom and integrity, few acts of any genre were willing to stand by their vision with the iron determination of California stoner rock titans Sleep. After the release of their second album, 1993's Sleep's Holy Mountain, the group was offered a lucrative major-label deal, supposedly in the mid-six figures; they accepted, and after spending a large portion of their advance on vintage amps and high-grade marijuana, Sleep retreated to the studio to record their definitive musical statement. The trouble began when Sleep turned the finished product in to their new patrons -- the album featured just one song, an epic-length paean to weed and bludgeoning guitar riffs called "Dopesmoker" that clocked in at a colossal 63 minutes. The label deemed the album un-releasable in its original form, and after much argument Sleep offered a compromised version; the song and the album were retitled "Jerusalem," the single composition was split into six identically named movements (though on CD they still played together as one heroic track), and the whole was trimmed to a more efficient 52 minutes. This hardly placated the label's marketing people, and from this point on Sleep refused to budge, eventually breaking up rather than re-record the album or allow it to be edited. In 1999, two years after Sleep called it quits and following the release of a bootleg version of Jerusalem created with the band's tacit permission, the independent Music Cartel label arranged for Sleep's final album to receive an authorized release at long last. However, there was a catch -- what emerged was the compromised, 52-minute version of the disc, while in 2003 Tee Pee Records finally issued the complete, band-approved, 63-minute Dopesmoker on both CD and vinyl. The difference between the two albums is a matter of relatively small details, but when you're dealing with one gargantuan riff that slowly but relentlessly stomps along for about an hour, details do make a difference. For Jerusalem, Sleep and producer Billy Anderson brightened the mix, softening the low-end thud of the drums and the bass tracks, while the few solos are given less breathing room, most of the introduction is scuttled and the song doesn't seem to end as much as it simply stops with a clumsy edit. Dopesmoker flows with a certain grace that Jerusalem lacks, and the brontosaurus pound of the drums and the LaBrea Tar Pits thickness of the bass suits this music better than the tidier and shorter version. In either form, the glorious absurdity of the lyrics (depicting "the Weedian people" and their sacred pilgrimage to "the riff-filled land") matches the music's obsessive march to the sea, and Matt Pike's guitar work takes Tony Iommi's sound to an epochal conclusion that the Sabbath guitarist likely never would have dreamed of himself. Either version is worth investigating for adventurous metal enthusiasts, but Dopesmoker is clearly the final and definitive presentation of this work, and unlike Jerusalem, Dopesmoker has Sleep's official seal of approval, which leaves Jerusalem as a well-intentioned but now unnecessary stopgap.
by Mark Deming